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Battlefield Innovation
by COL Tay Swee Yee


6 October 1973, at 1405 hours, one thousand Egyptian guns opened fire across the Suez Canal into Israeli defence positions. The Yom Kippur War was underway. The seemingly formidable sand ramparts built by the Israelis as part of the Bar-Lev Line defences, towering some 30 to 60 feet in height over the Canal, were ingeniously overcome by the Egyptians. A young Egyptian Army engineer had devised a novel method of excavation. High pressure pumps, mounted on rafts and sucking water from the Canal, ejected jets of water through hoses which thrust aside the sand, breaching gaps in the sand ramparts.1 Some 100 of these powerful fire-pumps were acquired from Germany. That facilitated the crossing and landing of Egyptian troops and equipment on the far bank using bridges and ferries. The invincibility of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), accrued from past years of victories fighting the neighbouring Arabs, was challenged. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War evinced this and many other lessons on the need for creativity in combat.

Battlefield innovation, or creativity in combat, can determine the outcome of a conflict. "Successful military endeavours always rely on creative insight and action. Generating the unexpected (the "new") or recognising and acting on the unexpected on the battlefield is consistently the key to victory".2 For the SAF, it is important that we add impetus to acquiring this culture of creativity during peacetime, so that in times of conflict, we have the mental agility and creative leadership, at all levels of command, to prosecute a war in our favour.

Battlefield Innovation Defined

So what is battlefield innovation, which is synonymous with creativity in combat? "Creativity is the ability to look at the same thing as everyone else but to see something different".3 Applied to the military art, it is about finding solutions to tactical problems posed by the opposing force; it is about finding a qualitative edge to overcome the threat; and it is about looking at ways to improve our military skills, arms and equipment handling as well as work processes. We have to be creative as it can spell the difference between a decisive victory and dismal defeat. "If necessity is the mother of invention, she is surely the matriarch of expediency".4 Battlefield innovation is not solely defence-industries driven, but often initiated in the field, although the solutions may have commercial content.

And why is there the need for battlefield innovation? It is because militaries do not always show all their cards prior to a conflict, hence it is difficult to ascertain an opposing force's complete capability. In the Yom Kippur War, the IDF was taken by surprise when the Egyptian Army started using canvas-covered suitcases that revealed the new Soviet Sagger ATGM which took its toll on IDF tanks. In the midst of conflict, the IDF Armoured Corps which was not trained to react against this weapon, had to hastily devise what was later known as anti-Sagger drills to dodge the wire-guided Sagger by aggressive driving - swerving and steering the targetted vehicle in a vigourous zig-zag manner, especially at the terminal phase when the low velocity missile was nearing the vehicle. The drill incorporated laying machine-gun fire in the vicinity of the suspected missile firer position as the firer had to be in visual contact with the target to guide the missile to the target.

All intelligence acquisition capabilities have limitations, and often even with incomplete intelligence reports a military force may have to commence hostilities. It is this need to expect the unexpected that we ought to cultivate in ourselves the ability to innovate, even in times of crisis, so as to reduce or negate the unexpected advantage the threat has over us be it in terms of special weapons and equipment capability, or in terms of special tactics and doctrine.

Historical Examples

History is replete with examples of how battlefield innovations helped in turning the tide of war. As early as the 16th century, the plug bayonet was replaced by the ring bayonet to allow the infantry to continue firing with the bayonet attached. 5

For the Normandy landings, multi-ship breakwaters, or Mulberries as they were called, sailed on 30 May 1944 as part of the invasion force from ports in Scotland to the five designated beaches. These artificial harbours were a tribute to engineering ingenuity. They consisted of cylindrical floats linked together and anchored in deep water to serve as breakwaters. Concrete caissons (phoenixes), some as high as a six-storey building, would be towed across the channel and sunk in place to extend the Mulberry breakwaters. In the sheltered water, rooms were provided for the anchoring of ocean-going as well as coastal ships.6

At the same landing beaches, the Allied forces were confronted with hedgerows at the egress routes, which the American troops were not trained nor prepared to overcome. Tanks were particularly vulnerable when climbing over such obstacles as the lightly armoured tank bellies would be exposed to enemy fire. At such critical moments also, the tank gun could not be depressed sufficiently to return fire. SGT Curtis G. Cullin Jr., an American serving in the 102nd Cavalry Recce Squadron, devised a sort of fork made of iron which could be attached to the front of the tank thus enabling it to cut through a hedgerow rather than climb it. A maintenance expert in the same unit then worked on the technical aspect of the problem and built forks out of salvaged iron bars which the Germans had used for beach obstacles. A frantic pace developed to equip as many tanks as possible with the simple contraption before the final breakout - "Operation Cobra". SGT Cullin was later awarded the Legion of Merit for his innovativeness.7

The Americans were surprised yet again in the initial years of their involvement in South Vietnam when they discovered a unique battle fought inside a 200-mile labyrinth of underground tunnels and complex chambers that the Vietcongs dug just north of Saigon. None of the American troops sent to Vietnam had any instruction on tunnel warfare. As death toll climbed, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), recommended the creation of specialist soldiers later to evolve as the "Tunnel Rats". Volunteers who were able to operate in a claustrophobic environment, and who possessed special type of temperament and courage, were sought from the ranks. Pistols were used instead of rifles to minimise damage to the ears when fighting in the tunnels, and soldiers were trained to engage at short ranges in the dark. They were also schooled in detecting booby traps that existed in the tunnel network.8

Meanwhile, at the Limited Warfare Laboratory (LWL) in Maryland, USA, engineers were trying to develop counter-insurgency hardware to meet the operational needs of the combatants. One of the developments was the "tunnel exploration kit" which comprised three items. For the Tunnel Rats to move around the darkened tunnels, each had a headlamp mounted on a fatigue cap with hands-free, mouth operated switch that the wearer bites to turn the light on and off. In lieu of a manpack signal set, a communication system with sensitive "bone conductor microphone" worn against the bone at the back of the head, or strapped around the throat with reception through the earpiece was developed. Each had a .38 calibre revolver with four-inch barrel complete with silencer and a tiny high intensity aiming light to gun down the Vietcongs.9 However, rigourous field trials were done and these were found to be not ideal and the Tunnel Rats eventually resorted to other field expedient methods.

The mechanised forces propagated a drill, known as the "mad-minute", in response to previous Vietcong sneak attacks on their leaguering (harbouring) sites. It was a minute of intense machine-guns fire in the vicinity of the intended leaguering site to flush out any Vietcongs that may be lying in wait to ambush or attack the leaguering force.

The War of Attrition (from 1967 to 1973) between the IDF and the Egyptians also spun many battlefield innovations. In a bid to prevent the IDF from prying into the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal, the Egyptian combat engineers constructed ten-metre high sand walls. IDF front-line intelligence officers with high-powered binoculars, trying to get a height advantage, had to climb onto anything that would help them to peer into Egyptian territory. These included the driver's cab top of half-tracks, hull top of armoured personnel carriers and even on the top of bunker ventilation systems. Subsequently, the IDF Ordnance Corps helped built, according to the Intelligence Corps' specifications, a sixty-foot high cherry picker attached to the turret area of a Sherman tank.10 This tower, though rudimentary, provided the intelligence officers, and the artillery spotter, with a surveillance platform that was nearly invisible against the desert backdrop.

An innovative IDF intelligence officer, Shabtai Bril, recalled an expensive toy shop that he had visited in the United States, where a sales clerk had demonstrated a radio-controlled model airplane. The motorized airplane was powered by a remote-control device equipped with four transmitting frequencies - two to power the engine, one to control the wing flaps, and a fourth serving as a reserve. With some modifications, Shabtai Bril thought, the reserve frequency could operate a 35mm camera fitted with a zoom lens, which the IDF would have no difficulty fitting to the aircraft's undercarriage. The toys were bought from the store and a series of field trials followed, including determining if the device could survive anti-aircraft gun fire. The unmanned aircraft was controlled by an intelligence officer flying in a Piper Cub, holding the remote-control device on his lap, and monitoring the aircraft using binoculars. Photographs taken over the Sinai front as well as the Jordan Valley, while evading Jordanian anti-aircraft fire and not drawing the attention of the Egyptians, were of superb quality. "The age of the remote piloted vehicle (RPV) had dawned".11

In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, members of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) showed ingenuity in dealing with the array of Soviet supplied weapons operated by the Egyptians, after experiencing heavy losses in aircraft. While the IAF knew how to evade the SA-2 Guideline and SA-3 Goa surface-to-air weapons, they had greater difficulty in dealing with the newer and mobile surface-to-air missile, SA-6 Gainful, and the portable SA-7 Grail systems. Counter-measures were experimented with, ranging from simple measures such as dropping of foil strips (window or chaff); to techniques using helicopter spotters in cooperation with attack aircraft; and the shedding of flares to attract the missile infra-red homers.12 An effective method of attacking SA-6 batteries was conceived, entailing almost vertical dives from height directly above the missile vehicles to exploit the fact that the weapon’s initial launch trajectory, for maximun acceleration, was low.13

In the run up to the 1982 Israeli-Syrian conflict, which was a part of the larger IDF's "Operation Peace of Galilee" in Lebanon, the IAF flew drones which simulated manned aircraft to induce the Syrians to activate their air defences. This was necessary to piece together the Syrian air defence capabilities and to gather intelligence on any new or unfielded weapons that the Syrians could have recently acquired. When the drones were fired upon, accompanying IAF RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft were monitoring electronic emissions to map out the Syrian radar characteristics, communication equipment and procedures, command and control structures, weapons capabilities, and air defence tactics.14 Much thought was given in employing this tactic. Decoy drones, the Samson, an air-launched unpowered glider and Delilah, a ground-launched powered drone, were used in large numbers to simulate an air attack on Syrian positions. The Samsons, which had the radar profile of the IAF F-4 Phantoms and carrying an electronic counter-measure package, were particularly important. They were released from F-4 Phantoms with the sun behind them. This meant that the Syrians could not possibly track the drones optically and had to resort to their radar. With the Syrian radar now active, follow on Phantoms would then engage the missile positions.

Lessons learnt from past wars were translated into innovations in the design of new equipment as the IDF has successfully shown in the design of the Merkava tank. For example, the smoke launchers that are intended to mask the tank in an extrication are fitted with delay fuses that activate the smoke bombs in the air and in effect cast an instantaneous screen. This contrasts with conventional smoke grenade that activates the smoke screen after the grenade lands on the ground. Beneath the first layer of cast iron hull is a space filled with diesel fuel and then another layer of armour. This spaced armour gives the tank protection from HEAT projectiles and ATGWs. One would also notice the closely spaced chains with ball ends around the lower part of the turret bustle. These detonate HEAT projectiles before they can hit the turret ring. The tank does not carry jerry-cans of drinking water; the 60-litre water tank is built within the hull above the rear hatch that conforms to the contour of the hull to save space.

Fostering the Climate of Creativity in the SAF

Can the climate of creativity be fostered in the military where the buzzwords are "school solution", "zero defect", "don't fix it if it ain't broke" or "don't rock the boat"? Creativity has attendant risks and in seeking improvements and experimentation, mistakes are made. Can the organisation tolerate mistakes? Buy-in of the senior military leaders is important to propagate the culture of creative thinking. Without it, any creative ideas will remain stillborn as the military, like parts of the civil service, can be bureaucratic. Hence it is important that the senior leadership interest themselves with this concept. The military has to accept that the defence dollars will not be growing any larger, and any improvement to the defence capabilities may have to be, in part, done through innovative and creative solutions not only in defence procurement and equipping but also in our work practices and processes.

It is easier to accept mistakes, associated with experimentation, in peacetime than in wars as no lives will be lost. So long as the experimentation and the mistakes so made are in good intent, superiors must be willing to, not only to tolerate them, but to encourage experimenters to learn from their mistakes. A poor leader stifles creativity.

Military leaders must not be too quick to dismiss, demolish or ignore new military ideas and concepts. We recall the British Army’s experiment in the Salisbury Plain prior to World War II on the innovative concept of employing tanks. The British military leadership was slow to recognise “the revolutionary potential of armoured mobile warfare and the new tool for controlling this fluid, fast-moving battlefield: the wireless radio”.15 The Germans, on the other hand, were quick to capitalise on the pioneering works of the British and created the panzer divisions and the doctrine of blitzkrieg, which they used with such devastating effect against the British in the early war years.

Does creativity contravene the culture of an Army driven by doctrine? How often does a unit get penalised by exercise controllers for not following published doctrine even though the actions of the unit under assessment was approaching a tactical problem with an innovative solution? Doctrine is an accepted way, though not the only way, of doing things in a particular profession. It is intended as a guide especially for those new to the profession, and as a common form of language. They are of course cynics who proclaim that doctrine is obsolete as soon as it is printed! Doctrine is necessary to guide the development of a military organisation and to get the acts of an intricate organisation like the military with its hierarchical structure of section, platoon, company, battalion, brigade etc. to be coherent and effective. The application of doctrine must be tempered with rationality and if creativity can be featured by way of another method of achieving the same effects, assessors must be open-minded and commend the spirit of innovativeness. Doctrine is a living phenomenon. It is but a way, not the only way, of doing things. Doctrine cannot address every tactical scenario that the established doctrine are to be applied. Certainly doctrine can be changed if a new mode of overcoming a military solution or one that can control the chaos often associated with combat ("controlled chaos") proved effective.

Are We Getting It Right?

The nation in general, and the SAF in particular, are largely on the right track in our attempt to promote and stimulate creativity. Nationally, we have various government bodies to handle this and the National Technology and Science Board had done an excellent job of stewarding this effort, including priming the Young Innovators Club. The young school children have proved their mettle with innovative ideas evident by the inventions featured in the annual Tan Kah Kee Young Inventors' Award, now in its 11th year of existence. Rear-Admiral Teo Chee Hean, our Education Minister, has also announced the inclusion of creative thinking skills in our school curriculum. It remains for the adult workforce to fully subscribe to this culture in their workplace.

Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats, who is credited with more than 2,300 patents (as compared to Thomas Edison's 1,093), and who invented the floppy disk, lauded the Eastern way of education in preparing children for the strong competition in the workplace and its effect on creativity.16 The Japanese school system, he said, stressed "memorisation" which is necessary up to a point. "Then young people begin free-associating, putting everything together." It is this balance of regimentation and freedom that creativity comes from.

The SAF has been, is still, and will continue to be the pioneering entity in this movement with our PRIDE, WITs and other related programmes. It is critical for the SAF to continually seek innovations in our peacetime training so that the same culture will prevail in times of tension. In this regard, it is heartening to note that the emphasis on our WITs projects continues to be centred on operation-related projects. Although improvements in the workplace and administration are important, it is the operational area (training methods, doctrine and tactics, improvements to weapons and equipment handling, as well as training safety) that we must continue our emphasis so that we can have the qualitative edge over an adversary. This is the key if we are to be prepared for the expected in a conflict. It is the surest way to maintain the mental agility to be able to overcome, and not be overwhelmed by, something unexpectedly thrust upon us.

Creative Rule of Thumb

Charles Thompson in his book - What a Great Idea! The Key Steps Creative People Take - introduces certain rules of thumb which are instructive.17 Here are two examples. His first rule is "the best way to get great ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away". There are many solutions to a problem and the idea is to keep all options open and evaluated in terms of feasibility, efficacy, cost-effectiveness etc. so that the option that best meet the need is selected. The second rule is "create ideas that are fifteen minutes ahead of their time ... not light-years ahead". The thrust here is to find marginal improvement to a problem as it is likely to be easier than to find a revolutionary solution, which if a solution is not readily available, the people involved may feel disillusioned. Also, ideas that are fifteen minutes ahead of their time are more likely to be accepted or less likely to be ignored by the management or the military leadership who can visualise if the idea works.


In 1899, the director of the United States Patent Office, the nation's steward of innovation, was quoted to have said "everything that can be invented has been invented".18 He couldn't have been more wrong.

For the SAF leadership, in our bid to continue to promote military creativity, we have to make changes to management mind-sets. We must temper our notion of "zero-defect". It demands the cultivation of a whole new culture, a more open culture - open to criticism and change, and open to experimentation that has associated risks and mistakes. It demands that we encourage subordinates to leverage and learn from mistakes. That they explore new ideas without fear of retribution. As a small military, this is our best bet for a qualitative difference.


1 Monroe, Elizabeth and Farrar-Hockley, MAJ-GEN A.H., II. The October War, Adelphi Papers No.111, IISS : London, 1975, pp. 20.

2 Bay, Austin, Military Creativity, Army, Jan 95 Association of the US Army.

3 Thompson, Charles, What a Great Idea! The Key Steps Creative People Take, Harper Collins: NY, 1992, pp 4.

4 Bay, Austin, op cit.

5 Keegan, John, A History of Warfare, Alfred A. Knopf : NY, 1993.

6 The following books give excellent treatment of this subject: Charles B. Macdonald, The Mighty Endeavor:_American Armed Forces in the European Theater in WWII, (New York, 1969), pp.263; L.F. Ellis, Victory in the West, I, The battle of Normandy (London, 1962), pp. 88-89, 140; Roland G. Ruppenthal, Logistical Support of the Armies (Washington, 1953, pp. 273-282.

7 A good account of this can be found in The Papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower: The War Years (5 vols.,Baltimore, 1970) III: No. 1794,pp 1969; Macdonald, op cit., pp 294; and Omar N. Bradley, A Soldier's Story (New York, 1951) pp 341-342.

8 Mangold, Tom and Penycate, John, The Tunnels of Cu Chi - The Untold Story of Vietnam, Random House : NY, 1985, pp 101.

9 Ibid, pp 109.

10 Katz, M. Samuel, Soldier Spies - Israeli Military Intelligence, Presidio Press : CA, 1992, pp 216

11 Ibid, pp 217 - 218.

12 Monroe and Farrar-Hockley, op cit., pp 26.

13 Rodwell, R. Robert, The MidEast War: "A Damned Close-Run Thing", Air Force, February 1974.

14 Carus, W. Seth, Military Lessons of the 1982 Israel-Syria Conflict, from The Lessons of Recent Wars in the Third World : Approaches and Case Studies, Vol I, ed Robert E. Harkavy and Stephanie G. Neuman, Lexington books, 1985, pp 264.

15 Austin Bay, op cit.

16 Dr Nakamats was interviewed by Charles Thompson on 29 April 1990 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Among other issues discussed, Dr. NakaMats was asked about the Japanese teaching methods and how it affects creativity. See Charles Thompson, op cit., pp xi - xviii.

17 Ibid., pp 3 - 6.

18 Ibid., pp 1.

COL Tay Swee Yee is currently the Asisstant Chief of General Staff (Intelligence). He attended the US Army College Course in 1997. COL Tay's essay won a Commendation Award in the 1997 CDF Essay Competition.

Last updated: 18-Jul-2005






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